Thursday, August 12, 2010

In Theaters: I Am Love

I Am Love

Directed by Luda Guadagnino

The Grade: C+

It begins like The Godfather. A large, wealthy Italian family gathers for a celebration (a birthday in this case, rather than a wedding), and the family business becomes an important topic of conversation. Director Luda Guadagnino (working from a script he co-wrote with three others) uses the same strategy Francis Ford Coppola harnessed almost forty years earlier to quickly and fluidly introduce every member of a large family and where they stand in the hierarchy.

Tilda Swinton, in perhaps the best role of her career so far (she also co-produced) plays Emma, a beautiful Russian woman who completely recreated herself as an Italian when she married into the Recchis, a powerful and affluent Milanese family. Her husband, Tancredi, and their eldest son, Edoardo, have just been informed they will inherit control of their family’s textile business from Tancredi’s father. We also meet Elisabetta, daughter to Emma and Tancredi, and Antonio, a talented chef and friend to Edoardo. When Antonio later becomes a fixture of the Recchi household (he and Edoardo plan to open a restaurant together) his presence and cooking acumen awaken in Emma a desire to pursue more passion in her life—a challenge Emma is inspired to undertake when Elisabetta emerges as a lesbian. And, as these things so often do, this pursuit of passion results in an affair with Antonio.

The beautifully shot opening sequence is meant to portray the buried emptiness that hides in Emma’s soul, but what it really introduces us to is the emptiness of the movie. From the passing of the torch in the Recchi family that opens the film, and continuing until the final moment, none of the major events that change the characters seem to change them in ways that make sense—and some of those events make even less sense. When Emma begins her affair with Antonio, she seems to exude more passion for his cooking than for him. There is a lengthy and dramatic scene of Emma eating Antonio’s cooking for the first time, where she reacts to a plate of shrimp as though it were sex on a stick. (In an interview with Charlie Rose, Swinton said she and Guadagnino jokingly referred to this scene as “prawnography,” and that it was inspired by the way food was portrayed in the 2007 Pixar film Ratatouille.) Yet when it comes to making love for the first time, Emma and Antonio act as though they are performing a carefully plotted lab experiment; step one: unbutton blouse, step two: unzip pants, etc. We’re supposed to see the passionate core of Emma’s true being coming into its own, but how can we buy into that idea when Emma’s actions don’t really let us?

I Am Love has three things going for it: The cinematography, the score, and Tilda Swinton. Swinton, who has always been a good actress (she won an Oscar for 2007’s George Clooney-starring legal drama Michael Clayton), creates interest and sympathy even during sequences when the story seems to betray her character. And, as anyone who’s seen a trailer for the film can attest, it looks gorgeous. Cinematographer Yorick Le Saux (whose most notable previous credit would probably be 2003’s Swimming Pool) excels at finding the beauty and serenity in closely focused shots of ordinary things—flowers, bugs, food, architecture, water, etc. Even many of the shots of people in motion are framed in unique and aesthetically exciting ways, including a faux-chase sequence in San Remo that was clearly inspired by Hitchcock.

The score, by Pulitzer Prize winning composer John Adams, is an interesting matter, because it’s both fantastic, and fantastically out of place. There’s barely a moment when the score doesn’t call attention to itself, but is that really a good thing? In the film’s closing moments, the music crescendos with such bombastic pomp and circumstance that it felt like we were hearing the audio track to the wrong film. It was the sound of The Death Star being destroyed, and evil being vanquished from the galaxy. What it was most certainly not the sound of is the conclusion of a domestic drama. Too bad that’s what was on screen.

For most of I Am Love’s duration, Swinton’s daring performance and Le Saux’s exciting camera work manage to overcompensate for a poorly executed story. But a major event in the movie’s final act, which changes the status quo of the Recchi family in a way that just seems cheap and unfair, really leaves a sour after-taste to a movie that was only vaguely sweet to begin with. I Am Love feels like it’s supposed to be a film about the necessity of pursuing one’s passions, but it nearly turns into a cautionary tale on why not to.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

In Theaters: The Kids are All Right

The Kids are All Right

Directed by Lisa Cholodenko

The Grade: A-

There’s been an increasingly distressing problem with Indie-movies over the last several months, but we’ve finally been delivered the antidote in the form of Lisa Cholodenko’s wonderful comedy The Kids are All Right. The film stars Annette Benning and Julianne Moore as a Southern California lesbian couple (Nic and Jules, respectively) with two teenage children from an anonymous sperm donor, and their world gets chaotic when their daughter (Alice in Wonderland’s Mia Wasikowska) turns eighteen, making her legally allowed to hunt down her biological father. When Paul, the father played by Mark Ruffalo, shows up as an ├╝ber-cool, motorcycle-driving, restaurant proprietor, only Nic is hesitant to accept him into the carefully balanced family fold, and, as you might expect, hilarity ensues. But something else ensues as well, and it’s that movie rarity we call truth.

The epidemic with Indie-movies of recent vintage has been, quite simply, a lack of reality. This problem, I believe, goes back to the tremendous box office success of 2006’s Little Miss Sunshine, which was an enjoyable and funny film, but it created an appetite in audiences to see ironic comedies about families in which every member has an impossibly unique eccentricity (a genre birthed from Wes Anderson movies and the cult TV series Arrested Development). The result has been recent movies like Greenberg, City Island, and Cyrus, which were all funny, and all way too ridiculous for their own good. In each of these movies, the main characters have been so utterly whacked out with increasingly bizarre personality disorders, that it’s been difficult to find a glimmer of reality amidst the comedic devices. An example: when Ben Stiller’s titular Greenberg makes out his grocery list, it contains exactly two items: whiskey and ice cream sandwiches. Did I laugh? Of course I did (it’s funny!), but unless you have a similar grocery list, on what level are we supposed to relate to characters like these?

What The Kids are All Right really has going for it is that it doesn’t feel the need to mortgage the characters’ psyches in exchange for a cheap laugh. Every funny moment in the movie (and trust me, they are bountiful) feels born from genuine human interaction, and so does every moment of heartbreak (yup, there are a few of those too). When we see the first meeting between Paul and his two teenage children, it’s remarkably awkward because none of the three parties know how to temper real conversation with the far more important task of feeling each other out. But in some of the genuine advice Paul later doles out to his kids, we see that maybe fatherhood comes more naturally than he (or we) realized.

But while the title may tell us point blank how the kids are, the great unknown that the movie deals with is in whether the parents are all right. The upheaval that Paul’s presence creates in the meticulously orchestrated family structure that Nic and Jules have created threatens not just the kids’ behavior (watch out, the daughter’s on a motorcycle!), but also the parents. When Paul hires Jules to kick off her new landscaping business with a massive project on his backyard, Nic is queasy about the idea; does she not want Paul and Jules spending time together, or does she have a deeper desire to see Jules fail at her business so she can still feel needed in her role as emotional caregiver of the family?

Cholodenko has made a few movies prior to this one (2002’s Laurel Canyon being the most notable), and she and co-writer Stuart Blumberg drew from her real-life relationship with Wendy Melvoin, former lead guitarist of Prince’s 1980s backing band, The Revolution. But you’d be foolish if you think this movie will somehow not be about real relationships simply because the protagonists are a same-sex couple. Julianne Moore delivers a monologue towards the end of the film that was like a double shot of espresso truth; it’ll really wake you up, and we’ll probably be seeing snippets of it again next awards season.

Really, the only justification I have for a slight docking of the movie’s otherwise perfect grade is the uncertainty in the way one of the characters is left at the film’s conclusion, but it’s not fair to give away too much. 2010 is now more than half over, and this is—along with Toy Story 3—the year’s most original and perfect comedy/drama so far. And how interesting and ironic is it that the originality of The Kids are All Right is rooted in its adherence to reality instead of the departure from it?